Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Tackling Sensitive Religious Issues with Compromise

Written by johnleemk on 2:12:10 pm Jul 10, 2007.

There are a number of mundane issues not commonly touched upon by commentators, except possibly those with an axe to grind. When religion is so intertwined with public life as it is in Malaysia, there are bound to be prickly everyday issues that need to be resolved.

One problem is that of pets — a number of parks, such as the one near my house, prohibit people from walking dogs within their premises. This regulation is often ignored, making it redundant, so it is obviously one worth reconsidering. Even now, there is a bit of a stigma attached to bringing a dog in public spaces — my siblings and I have not dared to take our dog to a public beach lest we unwittingly get in trouble with some overzealous Muslims.

The obvious problem is that Muslims cannot touch dogs (at least according to the school of thought widely practiced in Malaysia; a number of Muslims have held otherwise — former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail even kept a dog in his home). The libertarian solution is, of course, simply for the Muslims not to touch dogs, and let owners walk their dogs freely.

However, the problem is that if there are dogs everywhere, it becomes impossible for anyone, Muslim or otherwise, to use the premises without touching a dog.

An economist with his head in the clouds would suggest forcing people to pay others using the facilities whenever they walk their pets. This is of course an unworkable solution in the real world, at least with the technology we have currently.

What we could do, though, is apply the common law we have passed down to us from England. Battery — the act of having unwanted force applied to one's person — is a reason to sue under English law, and it seems obvious to me that if a dog touches you without your consent, battery has occurred, and you have the right to sue the dog's owner.

This would thus create an incentive for dog owners to restrain their pets, while allowing everyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, to use our public spaces and facilities without fear.

On the other side of the coin, there are Muslims causing a nuisance for non-Muslims — muezzinss sounding the call to prayer before dawn have caused inconvenience to non-Muslims. (I personally have not had any such problem, despite having lived quite close to mosques, but not everyone is as heavy a sleeper as me.)

The economist's solution here is probably more workable — simply tax the mosques (something that would probably prove controversial, though, considering the stigma attached to taxing any religious body in most countries, especially Muslim ones in Malaysia) and pass out the subsidy to houses within a certain radius.

To be fair, similar taxes should be imposed on other religions that cause a similar nuisance to the community — church bells and Taoist funeral rituals are two examples I can think of off the top of my head.

This is a policy, however, that would probably not be ideal if implemented by a federal or state government. This is something that local governments should implement, since the amount of the tax/subsidy should vary according to the cost of living, etc. in the area, and in some areas, it might not be necessary to impose a tax.

That is, of course, just one possible solution. To be very frank, I am not sure how big a problem this is — I have not heard many complaints about loud calls to prayer, but the few complaints I have heard have been very vocal.

In any event, this is the kind of compromise/give-and-take that has to occur if all religious communities are to exist in harmony in the country. Dog owners must respect those who do not want to touch dogs; those who make noise must respect those who do not want that noise. The issue of religion should be a peripheral item, if it is brought in at all. Looked at from an objective perspective, it is clear that compromises on these mundane issues should be arrived at.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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